June 5, 2023 | Policy Brief

Lebanese Judge Indicts Hezbollah Members for UN Peacekeeper’s Death

June 5, 2023 | Policy Brief

Lebanese Judge Indicts Hezbollah Members for UN Peacekeeper’s Death

A military investigative judge in Lebanon indicted five alleged members of Hezbollah last Thursday for killing an Irish peacekeeper in December. If the men’s affiliations are confirmed, they would be the first Hezbollah members charged with homicide in a Lebanese court in nearly 15 years.

On December 14, an Irish soldier with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed in southern Lebanon when his peacekeeping convoy came under fire. Three other soldiers were wounded in the attack. The immediate details of what happened were “sparse and conflicting,” but Wafiq Safa, Hezbollah’s “coordination and liaison officer,” said the militant group was not involved.

Now, Lebanese judge Fadi Sawan is accusing five men he identifies as Hezbollah members of “forming a group of malefactors to commit a crime.” His 30-page indictment incorporates evidence from bystander testimonies, audio recordings, and footage from surveillance cameras near the site of the attack. The indictment says the footage “clearly shows the patrol being attacked by armed men from all sides,” and the attackers can be heard saying “we are Hezbollah.”

The judge charged the five defendants with “intentional homicide.” One, Mohammad Ayyad, is in custody. The other four — Ali Khalifeh, Ali Salman, Hussein Salman, and Mustafa Salman — remain at large.

Lebanese authorities detained Ayyad in December shortly after the attack. An official told the media that, at the time, authorities charged Ayyad with “killing the Irish soldier and attempting to kill his three comrades by shooting them with a machine gun.”

Hezbollah officials still deny any connection between their group and the UNIFIL soldier’s death. “There is no justification for the judicial official to mention the group’s name,” an anonymous official told the media. The official then claimed that Hezbollah “played a major role in easing tensions following the incident,” including “contact[ing] both the army and UNIFIL” and “encouraging residents to cooperate” with authorities.

But Hezbollah has a history of taking hostile action against UNIFIL movements it decides are unauthorized. Fox News aired footage of one such attack in 2019.

In 2006, UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1701 established a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon and mandated that UNIFIL assist the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in establishing a buffer zone “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons” in southern Lebanon. In practice, however, the LAF has helped Hezbollah secure its dominant position in southern Lebanon. The LAF even colludes with Hezbollah to prevent UNIFIL peacekeepers from accessing roads and sites along the 2006 ceasefire line. 

Last summer, when the UNSC renewed the peacekeeping mission, the council passed a resolution emphasizing that UNIFIL “does not require prior authorization or permission to undertake its mandated tasks.” That language riled Hezbollah, and UNIFIL immediately reassured the U.S.-designated terror group it would not act without first coordinating with the LAF.

The failed security architecture in southern Lebanon should worry American policymakers. Washington is responsible for approximately one-quarter of UNIFIL’s $500 million budget and has invested over $3 billion in the LAF since 2006. Congress should exercise stronger oversight of U.S. contributions and consider making future appropriations contingent on UNIFIL and the LAF demonstrating independence from Hezbollah. Otherwise, taxpayer dollars will continue to underwrite the Hezbollah-led order.

Defenders of the UNIFIL-LAF arrangement argue that it breeds stability. But as long as the LAF and UNIFIL allow Hezbollah to roam free, stability will remain elusive.

Natalie Ecanow is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute in Washington, DC, focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.


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